Awake & Listening

Preached by James for the First Sunday of Advent:

“And what I say to you I say to all: keep awake.”

This week, some of us have been trying to do a better job of listening to the voices of black people. This has less to do with how racist we may or may not consider ourselves, or how many black friends we have, and everything to do with how white people publicly engage the conversation on race. Last Monday, when a Grand Jury declined to pursue charges against the white police officer who killed an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson Missouri, the volume on a conversation about race in America which has been going on for some time was once again amplified by demonstrations of prophetic witness. We remember that the biblical prophets proclaimed their message by acts of public theatre and spectacle, taking to the streets with strange, symbolic gestures meant to disturb the routines of photobusiness-as-usual into seeing something true. This week, the prophetic witness and theatre has included box cut placards, multi-racial assemblies of attentive listeners, chanting, fire, the stoppage of traffic, a 150 mile march to the state capital of Missouri, an attempt to derail the Macy’s parade and interrupt Black Friday shopping. The voice of prophetic protest has been amplified by tweets, posts, blogs, hashtags, shares and likes, by awkward conversations over Thanksgiving dinner, on public transit with strangers en route to rallies, and in the Facebook comment threads of friends of friends.

The voices of this conversation are not only being amplified for their own sake. They are amplified, in part, as an address, at least one of the objects of which is us. They are amplified, in part, for the sake of witnessing to white people about black experience in America. Now, when we are addressed, in any kind of situation, we have a variety of responses at our disposal. Imagine two people sitting face to face in conversation. One of them is sharing a story about something that has been very painful. How do we know that the other one listening? There are certain signals we might pick up on to know that the listener is engaged. She might lean in, she might nod her head, at certain points she might repeat certain key phrases, or ask clarifying questions. All of these cues send the message of being heard and supported. Similarly, we’d know if the listener was disengaged. Her eyes might be cast down to the floor, her arms crossed, her comments disconnected or dismissive. She might simply be silent. From her cues we might think that the listener feels defensive, uncomfortable, attacked, or ill-equipped to respond.

If we magnify these dynamics to the public sphere, we’ll note that we’ve seen signs of both engaged listening and willful disengagement in the past week. We’ve seen police embracing protesters and we’ve seen police lined up in a barricade to prevent peaceful assembly in public arenas. We’ve seen folks complaining about having their shopping interrupted by peaceful protest and we’ve seen mall employees leaving their work behind to join in. We’ve seen white folk wade into conversations that make them uncomfortable, we’ve seen white folk get defensive, and we’ve seen white folk silent out of fear or dis-ease or a sense of this not being a conversation they’re a part of. We’ve seen white folk with their eyes down to the floor while their black brothers and sisters speak about their pain.

When faced with the voice of witness, and complaint, and pain, the way we choose to engage matters to our life in God. Isaiah does not cry to God this morning for immediate peace or silent presence. Isaiah calls on a God who can turn the world upside down. Isaiah calls on God to rend the heavens, topple mountains, and rouse fire strong enough to boil the sea. Similarly, we spend lifetimes of worship singing to a God whom we wish would draw nearer to us, whom we wish would speak more clearly in our midst. Yet what do we do when God does speak? How do we respond when God’s word unsettles us, strips us of our comforts, or shows us a truth about our lives that we’d rather not see? When God speaks of pain in the world, of systems that stifle some lives while rewarding others, do our bodies lean in to hear more, or do our eyes drop to the floor? Is our posture towards God defensive or engaged?

For a long time we’ve been used to hearing the story of black lives in America as one of Exodus. We’ve heard of black history as one of breaking free from systems of slavery and legally sanctioned segregation in the same way the Hebrew people were delivered out of Egypt. I wonder if this is the narrative some white people have in mind when I hear questions about what more black people could want having already come through the victories of abolition and desegregation. While I can imagine a great many other things that black people may want to be delivered of, it also seems to me that the conversation at hand is not only about Exodus, but also about apocalypse and eschatology. Apocalypse is a word of Greek roots which speak of uncovering that which has been hidden, eschatology is speech about the end of the world as we know it. The current conversation about race in America is apocalyptic in the way it uncovers a reality which can too easily remain hidden: incarceration rates for black men which are triple the national average and disproportionate to the rates of black crime, prosecution of drug-related charges which are disproportionate to the rates of black drug traffic, and story after personal story of experience of racial profiling by those in authority. In apocalyptic speech, veils are lifted revealing greater, clearer realities beneath the business-as-usual we’ve been conducting. In the unveiling, God’s power is disclosed, and God’s preference for the disadvantaged is made clear. In eschatology, we hear of the end of our world and the beginning of God’s. In black voices, we hear a hope of ending one world in which empowered black bodies inspire dismissive suspicion, and the beginning of a new one where they inspire solidarity and respect.

Jesus has one word of advice for apocalyptic end times: keep watch. It makes a certain kind of sense. When the familiar world we’ve known changes, when the curtain is pulled aside to reveal ugly truths and patterns of privilege which can only pass away in the light of God, when the things that have made us strong in the past are shown to be weaknesses, vigilance is key. Keeping watch as if the lives around us depended on it is key for learning the new patterns of power and leadership in the kingdom of God now dawning among us. The opposite of keeping watch is sleepy satisfaction. When we get accustomed to a world that keeps us comfortable we risk blindness to a new way which is being revealed. I want to leave you with one practice for keeping watch this week: talk with someone different from you about race in America. Maybe the difference is between white and black. Maybe it’s the difference of thinking race is an issue worth protesting and thinking that it’s not our argument to enter. Maybe it’s a difference of opinion about how to best proceed. Whatever the difference, engage the conversation fully, and in person. It may be that you find yourself up against something uncomfortable, something difficult to articulate, something painful. It may be that you have the opportunity to uncross your arms, lift your eyes up from the floor, and lean in closer to listen for more. If you do, you will find yourself nearer to the God who comes to dwell among all of us, the advent of justice and true peace.

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